Rev. Douglas Taylor
I think I picked “grace” as a sermon topic primarily because I like to sing the hymn. My mom used to tell me that we Unitarian Universalists can be very intellectual and ready to argue about doctrines and beliefs at the drop of a hat, but if asked to sing Amazing Grace, we do so with gusto – many even singing the line about being a “wretch,” despite the option to insert the word “soul” instead. I mean, that right there should tell you all kinds of information about Unitarian Universalists: We give people an alternate line in our hymnal according to their conscience. Sing about being a soul or sing about being a wretch – either way is fine. But choose quickly because it is coming up in the seventh measure of verse one.
I trust most of you have a sense of where this hymn came from. It is the story of Englishman John Newton (1725-1807), slave ship captain turned Anglican priest. According to one version of the story, our captain was sailing with a hold full of human cargo when a fierce storm overtook the ship. Fearing for his ship and his life, the captain, in desperation, began to pray. Surviving the harrowing storm, John Newton had a conversion experience that made see the evil of slavery and set on the path to being an abolitionist and a priest. That, as I said, is one version of the story. It is not true, but it is a good story.
In truth, our captain retired after earning quite a lot of money from the slavery business, returned to England to become a well respected and accomplished preacher. As a priest, he also had a talent for writing hymns and indeed wrote and co-wrote a great many hymns during his years. Over time, Newton’s views on slavery shifted and he grew to be an advocate of abolition. And it was out of his experiences working against slavery as a priest that he came to write the hymn Amazing Grace. It was not an “all of a sudden” conversion from sinner to saint, from slaver to abolitionist, from captain to priest. It evolved over time. You could say grace made its way though his life as a slow and subtle thread rather than as a sudden flash, as so many assume.
Grace is one of those religious words that has made its way into secular usage and thus lives on in our vocabulary. Credit cards and insurance companies provide a “grace period” between the due date of your bills and the date upon which they charge you for being late. Composers will sometimes add “grace notes” to their score — notes that are not essential to the melody, yet add flourish and flare. “Grace,” in these uses, refers to something extra, they are gratuitous. (from Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace?, p 12)
Even when we keep a more religious sentiment, the meaning of “grace” can shift, as in the example of “saying Grace” before a meal. In this case, “grace” refers to a prayer uttered before eating. One colleague, reflecting on this form of grace, writes:
The intent of such a prayer is two-fold: one is to encourage the spirit of gratefulness for the food, and another is so that the food will benefit us spiritually. Grace before the meal also takes the event of the meal out of just ordinary time and into sacred time. In this way, a simple table grace can induce the feeling of being blessed or having a sense of well being. (“A Question of Grace” Rev. Ann Fox, December 3, 2006, Unitarian Universalist Society of Fairhaven)
Of these examples, the words of the hymn and the story behind the hymn – both the real version and the fanciful version – are closer to the original religious understanding of Grace than these secularized versions of the word.
Grace is (according Van Harvey’s A Handbook of Theological Terms, p. 108) “the most crucial concept in Christian theology because it refers to the free and unmerited act through which God restores his estranged creatures to himself.” This idea of grace, stripped down to its most basic definition has to do with connection. In the theological vocabulary of Christianity, we have the words “free and unmerited” and I am quite used to seeing those adjectives attached to the concept of grace. Theologians and poets are amply capable of showing this aspect of grace. Robbie Walsh’s wonderful reading illustrates this: “Some say we get what we deserve in life, but I don’t believe it. We certainly don’t deserve Bach. What have I done to deserve the Second Brandenburg Concerto? … Life is a gift we have not earned and for which we cannot pay.”
But the part that struck me anew recently was the bit about connection, or as it is worded in my Handbook of Theological Terms, the restoration of estrangement. The free and unmerited part is old news. Theologians have been gnawing on that one for some time. It is undeserved, you’ve done nothing to gain it or earn it or win it. It is just there for you unexpectedly, unlooked for.
Christian author Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of taking out the trash one evening. It was just about sunset, and the bag was heavy. As she struggled to get it from her back door to the garage, she passed by her garden. Glancing through the gate, she noticed that the light was hitting the garden just so and, she said, she got “the whole dose of loveliness at once” as the setting sun turned the scene golden. But she had to dump the trash before she could really experience it, and when she went back just a few moments later, the light had changed and the garden had returned to normal. Taylor had noticed this moment of grace, but she passed it by. (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, p. 26.)
Beauty happens, if you can notice it. The earth pours this beauty out regularly, have you eyes to see? Grace is blessings and abundance, undeserved. It didn’t have to be like that, it might not have happened that way, but it did. What did you ever do to deserve ripe cantaloupe or true friends or lilac bushes or this church community? Have you noticed the beauty of the moon, or perhaps the sunset last night? The sun does this every evening. It does not care what your day was like or if your actions warrant this gift, it is there for you all the same, all you must do is notice.
Do you remember when I said, a few weeks back, that connection is our holiest word? At times, we feel disconnected from the world, from ourselves, from other people, from all that is holy. At times, we feel isolated or perhaps caught up in our own busy-ness. And then we’re taking out the garbage and see the fading sunlight falling on the garden just so. We reconnect with the beauty around us or within us or between us.
So, some would call this “God restoring his estranged creatures to himself,” and others would say it is our awareness of ourselves as connected with, indeed embedded in, that which is larger than ourselves and is also our larger self. Grace is that sense of connectedness that is also a profound respite, allowing you to release, for a time, the troubles of your life. It is that felt sense of something larger than yourself that holds all.
I think of the farmer who plants the seed. The work of the farmer is to plant the seed, not to grow the seed. The farmer is not in charge of the rain or the sun or the nutrients of the earth. Something larger is in charge of that: the laws of physics, the nature of seeds, the way the world works … the point is the farmer is not in control of that part. The farmer’s work is to plant the seed. Similarly, when you have trouble in life, when you’re working to make things happen, it can be restorative to allow a space for grace in your life to say, “I’ll do my part and trust the universe to do its part.” Because when we get too caught up in ourselves and our work and our efforts, we can lose sight of the beauty around us and within us. If we make space for grace in our lives, we can see we are not alone in our work.
The meditation by Wendell Berry has the word grace in the last line and I think it fits here. “For a time, I rest in the grace of the world and am free.” Worried, concerned, distracted, fearful, isolated … the word Wendell Berry uses is despair. “When despair for the world grows in me and I wake … in fear…” At times we feel disconnected. Grace is that reconnecting, that “act through which God restores his estranged creatures to himself.” And while it is “unmerited and unearned” and all that – as Wendell Barry shows, there are steps you can take to find it, to open yourself up to it.
In speaking of grace this way, as a way of noticing the world, as a way of being in the world, we would do well to not lose sight of that old traditional interpretation whereby Grace was the demonstration of God’s love for you. Liberal Christian author and apologist Frederick Beuchner characterizes grace this way: “The grace of God means something like: here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.” (Listen To Your Life)
I like the way Beuchner talks about grace in this regard. He says, clearly, that it is a gift which you cannot earn or win but he adds, “There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.” You do have some work to do. As the meditation by Wendell Berry indicates, you can’t stay in bed with your despair and fear, you must “go lie down where the wood drake rests … and the great heron feeds.” Grace will find you, but you need to work with it, and you’re allowed to go looking for it.
Existentialist theologian Paul Tillich talks about the profound sense of grace, when it is most amazing. He speaks of grace, not as the gentle moment while taking out the trash or watching wood drakes and herons. He speaks of the level of grace alluded to in the hymn, when you are really at the bottom of your rope.
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when year, after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsion reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness. If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. (from Shaking the Foundations, Paul Tillich)
Grace is that moment of reconnection, of turning back to God and discovering you are accepted and loved. Grace is the unanticipated felt knowledge that all shall be well.
This leads me to the story for which I have titled this sermon. There is a story that says each of us has a thread that connects us to God; when we sin, we cut the thread; when we seek forgiveness, we retie the thread. The story says each of us has a string that connects us to God, a thread running from our soul to the oversoul, a line tying the spark of divinity within each of us to the divinity of the whole – whatever theological framework you need to use – there is a thread. When we turn away from the holiness of life, when we sin or cause hurt, when we allow fear to command our actions, there is a cutting of the cord – we cut that thread of connection. We grow estranged, alienated, disconnected from God. When we turn back to face that which is holy, when we seek forgiveness, when we notice the angle of light upon the garden as we take out the trash, when we “go lie down where the wood drake rests … and the great heron feeds,” we are reconnecting. We are being restored with God. We are re-tying the thread.
When you re-tie a line, you create a knot and the string is shorter, causing you to be closer. Think of the occasions you have had a fight with someone whom you love – a parent, a spouse, a very dear friend. Not even necessarily a fight at the level where you might feel as though the deep connection between you has been severed – just a regular fight. When you get back together, when you make amends, when you weather that storm, are you not closer? Is not the fight and the fact that you are still together in love and loyalty a part of the depth of the relationship? So it is with grace. So it is with this story about knots along the line connecting you with all that is holy, with that which holds all.
Bill Moyers did a PBS documentary on the hymn Amazing Grace 20 years ago. One of the really striking scenes is at a concert in celebration of the changes that were happening in South Africa. The concert featured a variety of bands, mostly rock bands, but they had set the closing act as a black opera singer named Jessye Norman. Jessye comes out on the stage and the huge audience is all pumped up and shouting for more rock music. Jessye starts singing Amazing Grace, a capella, all alone on the stage, very slowly. As she sang, the crowd of seventy thousand unruly fans settled into a silence. By the second verse, she had them in the palm of her hands. “Jessye Norman later confessed she had no idea what power descended on (the crowd) that night.” (p. 282, Yancy.) Surely the answer is not that hard. The hymn evokes the feel of grace, evokes the remembered experience of it in the lives of people. Whether it is the dramatic sort of grace that Tillich speaks of or the gentler, subtler version we hear about from Wendell Berry, people understand what the song is about.
As we sing Amazing Grace for our closing hymn, I invite you to consider all the words of the hymn, not just the ones set apart with an asterisk. Consider how you can make room for more connections in your life, for more grace. You don’t need to earn it or win it, just plant the seed and let the seed do what seeds do.
In a world without end,
may it be so